When Anthony Whitaker moved to Madison eight years ago he was taken aback by the level of activism he saw transpiring in the community. Protesters were, at that time, filling the Capitol building and the square in demonstrations against legislation being put forth by former Governor Scott Walker. Those protests led to recall elections of two state senators and the failed recall of Walker himself.
For Whitaker, who is running for Alder of Madison’s 12th District representing the near-east side, it was eye-opening to see so many people participating in government and their community. It was even inspiring ….at first. But as Whitaker lived in Madison for a little bit longer, he began to see things a little differently. There seemed to be some major disparities in who got listened to and who didn’t. Who seemed to matter and who didn’t.
“I’m running because I want to make sure all voices get heard and that everyone gets a seat at the table,” Whitaker told Madison365. “I want to make sure if you’re not white – if you’re disabled, Black, Hispanic, you have a voice in city government. That’s why I’m running … to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.”
Whitaker served in the Army and did a tour in Iraq before coming back home to his native Chicago. That’s when he met his current fiance and they decided to move up to Madison.
“But when I got here I saw the folks in the state capitol and I saw real activism for the first time,” Whitaker says. “People getting involved and saying, ‘hey, what about my issues? Are you making sure you’re listening to my voice?’ I wanted to figure out what was going on. I attended City Council meetings, watched city meetings. I heard folks talking about the racial inequalities, wealth inequalities, but the folks coming up with the solutions weren’t the folks coming from those communities. So those communities’ voices are getting neglected.”
Whitaker, who works as a computer tech at Meriter Hospital, says that people from communities of color and communities that are impoverished should be involved in city government, not just well-to-do folks from plush areas.
“I’m a normal citizen. I never thought I would be running for office,” he says. “But I love public service. The same reason I joined the military is the same reason I want to run for City Council – to make sure the community I come from will have a fighting chance.”
But as a veteran, Whitaker knows the challenges many who are an underrepresented face in the community. Madison is home to many service veterans, a large amount of whom are struggling with homelessness. Chronic homelessness and the hopelessness that comes with it is something Whitaker sees as a major issue plaguing the city. But, as he said, because many of the decision makers around town have never faced such dire straits themselves, it is hard for them to know how to deal with it. Whitaker says Madison’s response is to put band-aids on everything rather than address the actual problems.
“A lot of folks, especially when we come back, deal with PTSD, alcoholism and other addictions. A lot of us have a hard time getting access to health care. I see a lot of folks who often have a struggle reintegrating,” Whitaker says. “That’s why you need those people in the room [in city government] to say that when vets come home from war or situations, you wanna make sure those folks have health care, mental health care, can stick in jobs and a lot of times it’s a hard thing to do. So I’m really excited to have an opportunity to get out and talk to folks and make a positive change.”
But it’s not just vets who struggle with those things. It is entire families. And Whitaker says that we need to hold city officials feet to the fire when it comes to addressing the real issues and having people on the council who have faced these issues in real life.
The housing project at Tree Lane comes to mind when Whitaker speaks about the mistakes that have been made and how we could do it better.
“There’s no mental health care, no wraparound services,” Whitaker says regarding Tree Lane, adding that the onus is on the City. “They’ve been shortsighted. This is not the first time we’ve had issues pop up and the city has had to come back and say, ‘we didn’t get it right the first time, let’s go back and take a second look.’ Oftentimes the city will come out with a great idea. We’ll implement it and then we’ll have to come back later and say we forgot about social services, mental health care, security. So we’ll have to go back and do it over but only after we’ve had negative stories already coming out. And we’ve been shamed into getting it right.
“But we can get it right the first time and we can do that by making sure that people have a stake in their community,” he adds.
Whitaker says when you look at entities like FEED on Madison’s North Side, you can see a blueprint for how to address issues while including the community.
“Everyone recognized the need. So everyone came together and made sure we got this right and it just celebrated it’s five year anniversary,” Whitaker says. “When we think about the Oscar Mayer study that’s been done, it’s thinking about how it would impact neighbors and what we’re going to do to make sure these projects work for the communities they are going to be in. When we include folks, we get it right and when we don’t, we get it wrong.”
Whitaker is referring to the area on Madison’s north side by the former Oscar Mayer plant that shut down in June of 2017. This past November, the city released the Oscar Mayer Strategic Assessment Report detailing a vision for the area around the plant. The Oscar Mayer site is firmly in what Whitaker’s district would be and he says that it’s important whatever we put there has a positive impact on the surrounding area and is thought through properly the first time.
“I haven’t been in office for 25 years. I haven’t been a committee member forever. I’m a regular citizen,” Whitaker says. “But when I go to a meeting and watch them talking about public transit that excludes portions of the north side or a public market that might have huge gains for minority communities, I wanna make sure those people have a seat at the table.”
With Whitaker representing Madison’s 12th district, they will.
Abbas is running against three other candidates, including Diane Farsetta, Lydia Maurer and Syed Abbas. The top two vote-getters in the primary on Tuesday, February 19, will face off in the April 2 general election.